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George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey

George Stevens was a greater humanist than a filmmaker, but he possessed enough technical skill that the former quality made possible a number of genuinely great works. Swing Time, Gunga Din, Woman of the Year, A Place in the Sun, and Giant are five exemplary films that stand out because of their disparate natures. A musical, an adventure, a romantic comedy, a tragedy, and a socio-economic tapestry of Texas — it's the kind of versatility for which Howard Hawks is justly celebrated. But while Hawks made more (and, particularly in the romantic-comedy genre, better) movies, Stevens has never been able to ignite much enthusiasm among the cineastes. For that reason, the best case for his mastery of the medium to date remains the 1985 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey. That the case had to be made by his adoring son, George Stevens Jr., and that furthermore not a single film critic appears during the course of the film, speaks dispiritingly to this strange tepidness accorded the director. Stevens Jr. has certainly done right by his pop, crafting an entertaining biography that deals glancingly with his Northern California upbringing, while offering a detailed appreciation of his craft, which comes courtesy of heavy hitters like Kathleen Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Warren Beatty, and Alan Pakula. Trained as a cinematographer and gag-man by Hal Roach, Stevens eventually broke away from his mentor (somewhat acrimoniously) and turned out the refined Alice Adams, which managed to be a hit at a time when its star, Katherine Hepburn, was massively unpopular with American audiences. It's this film and the later Woman of the Year that best display Stevens's masterful comedic timing. Wisely, Stevens Jr. includes the brilliant final sequence from the latter picture, in which working-woman Hepburn prepares a disastrous breakfast for her sportswriter husband, Spencer Tracy. A good deal of time also is spent on Gunga Din, though Stevens Jr. does soft-pedal to a degree the contentiousness that nearly derailed the entire production. The most compelling segment of the documentary details Stevens' service in World War II, which was spent filming most of the U.S. military's pivotal offensives and victories in the European Theater for the Signal Corps. This assignment also led him to the German concentration camps, the horror of which he filmed at length (some of it quite graphically, is shown here). Stevens was profoundly changed by what he saw in Europe, and it drastically altered his art, which, up until now, had been typically frivolous. No longer. After regaining his equilibrium with I Remember Mama, Stevens tackled Theodore Dreiser's immense An American Tragedy. He lopped off the first section of the novel, updated it to a post-WWII setting, and ended up with A Place in the Sun. From then up until his retirement in 1970, Stevens struggled with impossibly weighty themes, and though they mostly got the best of him (Shane is way too telegraphed, while The Diary of Anne Frank too stifling), he managed one more triumph in Giant. It appears that David Thomson's harsh assessment of Stevens — that his wartime transformation led him to complex material that exceeded his grasp — has become the conventional critical wisdom. This enjoyable film goes a long way toward dispelling this notion, but watching the actual movies belies it completely. Warner presents George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey in a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with decent Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The only extra is a brief text biography of Stevens. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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